The world is a palimpsest, a densely layered series of texts to be deciphered and read by all who live there. The sages of the Talmud seemed to think so, the great modernist Jewish writers surely thought so, and Jem Cohen, whose new film “Museum Hours” opens June 28, clearly agrees.
Although the film has as its ostensible narrative arc the growing friendship between Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian visitor who is tending to a dying cousin, “Museum Hours” is really a complex tapestry of art, history and communication, a quietly contemplative essay on the richness of our hours.
“Tapestry” is exactly the right metaphor for Cohen’s film. Its fabric is an intricately woven creation that brings into play such seemingly disparate elements as a Viennese flea market, the ride through a haunting grotto, the vast array of world art history on display in the museum, conflicts in Austria and the sense of estrangement that comes from being in a foreign city where the only person one knows is in a coma. As with a fabric tapestry, one could turn “Museum Hours” over to look at the complicated weave of these elements; there is Cohen’s use of long takes with almost no movement in the frame, often juxtaposed with extreme close-ups of the paintings, the interplay of museum audio-guide recordings with hushed conversation, the profusion of textures that he achieves with a deft mix of 8mm, 16mm, video and still photos. You can see in the underlying work a beauty of its own, inextricable from and yet so dissimilar to the image on the front side.
Put it another way: At the center of the film’s 106-minute running time is a lengthy sequence, perhaps as long as 10 minutes, of one of the museum’s gallery lecturers (Ela Piplits) talking about the work of Pieter Bruegel. She points out the extraordinary amount of detail in his large canvasses; the cornucopia of ordinary human activity that is stuffed into the panoramas he presents; the way that the quotidian details overwhelm the ostensible central events of a painting like his “Conversion of St. Paul,” in which the composition seems as much centered on a small boy playing at soldier in a grown-up’s armor; and a series of horses’ posteriors as on the title event. Finally, she invokes W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” in which he famously invokes the painter’s version of the fall of Icarus, saying “… it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
Cohen’s approach to the film’s narrative is every bit as indirect. Guided by Johann’s low-key narration, we learn of the mild ups and downs of the guard’s work life, his recollection of a former colleague who brought a rather familiar quasi-Marxist interpretation to the collected wealth of the institution, the amusing mental games he plays to keep himself occupied during his long workdays. The director juxtaposes an audio guide to the Book of the Dead with the proliferating detritus of the flea market — the exposed circuitry of a disintegrated laptop, piles of magazines and books that range from Franz Liszt to Donald Duck, an image of an old man trying on abandoned shoes. Like so many of the other elements of the film, the connection shouldn’t work; it’s almost too pat. Yet it does, in a deeply moving and satisfying way.
Above all, whether intentionally or not, Cohen seems to invoke a well-known passage from the daily Shacharit service, which points to “obligations without measure,” to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to comfort the bereaved, all of which Johann will do for Anne. Cohen even manages to indirectly address the commandment to rejoice with bride and groom when the gallery guide gives a delightful recounting of Bruegel’s “Peasant Wedding.” There are no direct invocations of Judaism in “Museum Hours.” But the film is redolent of Jewish thought and, more important, beautifully festooned with a depth of feeling that is belied by its seemingly cool tone. If “Museum Hours” isn’t on my 10-best list at the end of the year, then 2013 will have been one of the great film years of the new millennium.
“Museum Hours,” written and directed by Jem Cohen, opens Friday, June 28 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.,  924-7771) and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (1886 Broadway,  757-2280).